A Risky Business: Generation of Nuclear Power and Deepwater Drilling for Offshore Oil and Gas

11th February 2012 By: Hope M. Babcock

Although slightly more than thirty years apart, the direct and indirect causes of the nuclear core meltdown at Three Mile Island Unit 2 and the Macondo well blowout are remarkably similar.  But there the similarities stop, as the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after Three Mile Island rapidly implemented new safety protocols and risk methodologies that reflected a new-found awareness of the likelihood of a catastrophic nuclear accident happening again and the need to change the industry’s safety culture.  Notwithstanding a record of calamitous accidents, the offshore oil and gas drilling industry has made few efforts to change its safety culture or operating practices in the aftermath of the Macondo well blowout and has successfully resisted numerous regulatory efforts to force change.  This Article explores why the two industries reacted so differently after their major accidents and concludes the principal reason is the public’s fear of radiation.  The Article argues that while the nuclear industry is far from perfect, the offshore oil and gas industry could learn from the post-accident steps that the nuclear industry has taken, particularly those that involve rigorous internal and external auditing of its activities, greater public transparency, and internal corporate restructuring.  The Article suggests that these changes implicate how companies that engage in other risky operations might improve their conduct from an accident avoidance perspective.  The Article concludes that, in the context of the offshore oil and gas industry, it seems unlikely that these changes will be implemented given the absence of a sustained public fear of oil driving industry reform.

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